Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Reading Emerson

I have been reading Ralph Waldo Emerson after noticing a small hardback edition that combined excerpts from his book Nature and his essay "Self-Reliance" at Borders a few weeks ago. I was looking for, of all things, a tree identification guide: such is the serendipitous value of shopping at a bookstore. As it happens, I did not purchase the volume, wanting the entire text of Nature and his other writings as well.

Here is the first paragraph from Emerson's introduction to Nature, the bit that captured my attention at Borders:

Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs? Embosomed for a season in nature, whose floods of life stream around and through us, and invite us by the powers they supply, to action proportioned to nature, why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe? The sun shines to-day also. There is more wool and flax in the fields. There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.

I checked out from the library several editions of Emerson's writings, and found the most enjoyable to read for me is the 1992 Modern Library cloth edition titled The Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. I compared it with the Library of America edition, which comes in two books. After perusing both for a few evenings I found myself preferring the quality of type and paper in the Modern Library edition and set the other aside.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Nature Red in Tooth and Claw

As Elly and I were watching birds at our feeders this morning, a hawk swooped over the backyard fence and down on a starling. Birds started scattering as soon as the hawk appeared, but it was moving too fast for them all to escape. The back fence is maybe 30 feet from the feeding station. I actually saw what I think was the same bird yesterday morning, making a similar maneuver. It came swooping down and then flew back up over our roof chasing a sparrow. I only saw it for a moment yesterday.

We identified it as a juvenile sharp-shinned hawk. Sibley describes it as “Our smallest accipiter; relatively small-headed, small-billed, and broad-winged.” It also states the sharp-shinned hawk, along with the other accipiters (Cooper’s Hawk and Northern Goshawk) are agile in pursuing small birds through trees and bushes. We decided on the identification both because of the bird’s relatively small size, and the broad, coarse brown streaks on its breast. Juvenile Cooper's and Goshawks have darker, thinner streaks, and are much larger.

The starling tried to fly sideways when the hawk snagged it, but was forced down to the ground about eight feet from the feeding station. The hawk spread its wings, both I think to maintain its balance as the starling was frantically flopping about and also to corral its prey and prevent it from escaping in case it lost its grip on the bird (which didn't happen). This isn’t a great shot, but is the only one I got showing the hawk with its wings spread out.

It was using its talons to puncture the starling’s chest and almost immediately started ripping feathers out of the bird’s tail. Neither Elly nor I are starling fans, being well aware of the devastating effect they have had on native songbird species since being introduced to North America from Europe. Still, it was upsetting to watch the bird struggle as the hawk ripped out feathers. Within a few minutes, however, it started ripping at the starling’s neck, pulling its head off, which put an end to the struggling.

At first, it tried to fly off with the starling, even before it had subdued the bird, but after one experimental takeoff attempt it gave up on that and went to work dispatching its prey, pulling out feathers, removing the head, and pulling off both wings. We thought it intended to eat the starling where it landed, but eventually realized it was removing all the extremities so the carcass would be easier to carry off. I was able to take over 160 digital images. Unfortunately, due to the angle from our kitchen door, one of the columns on our back porch was close to our line of sight and interfered with picture taking. Any attempt to go outside would have frightened the hawk away, so we kept watch from the kitchen.

Amazingly, this squirrel showed no fear of the hawk and seemed more curious about what it had than anything else. Squirrels have a tendency to rush birds feeding on the ground to flush them into the air and claim peanuts and the like for themselves. The squirrel didn’t try this with the hawk, but did come within a few feet of the bird’s watchful glare.

After about 45 minutes of pulling and tearing it finally carved the carcass down to a manageable bundle and flew off.

The aftermath was a two foot circle of feathers and small bits.

Mute testimony to the violent and cruel struggle in our backyard on a seemingly peaceful Saturday morning. The other birds soon returned and continued foraging.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Thanksgiving 2007

For the first time in the 23 years, Elly and I decided to spend Thanksgiving together at home instead of attending or hosting a big family event. We have hosted many Thanksgiving and Christmas get-togethers for my brothers and sister living in Kansas City and their children since we moved into our midtown home in 1988. And when we haven't hosted the event, we have traveled to Colorado to spend Thanksgiving with Elly's parents.

With only ourselves to plan for, the day was relaxed, fun, and stress-free. Well, mostly stress-free. Elly has a fondness for trying new recipes at Thanksgiving, despite my encouragement to stick with the tried-and-true. All of the experimental dishes turned out well, however, giving only a few anxious moments.

One thing we never mess with is pumpkin pie. The secret to a great pie is to follow the recipe on the Libby’s can. (And use Pillsbury pie crusts!)

Given that we were cooking only for ourselves (and Samba), Elly limited the menu to ten dishes. These included an arugula salad with sliced pears, roasted grapes, and a roasted shallot dressing; a three-mushroom stuffing made with rosemary olive-oil bread; a sweet potato gratin on a base of carmelized onions; home-made cranberry sauce; white-cheddar mashed potatoes; turkey and cognac gravy (Elly, being a vegetarian, doesn’t partake of these two items, but Samba and I make up for that); deviled eggs (de rigueur for holiday events); brussel sprouts with an old-fashioned mustard butter sauce; some broccoli dish with pecorino romano cheese I can’t recall the details of at the moment; and, of course, pumpkin pie

Naturally, we had half a dozen issues of Fine Cooking and Gourmet magazine available for frequent reference while we were cooking, not to mention an extensive library of cookbooks. One nice change from previous years, since we were not concerned about dining in the early afternoon, was that Elly didn’t have to get up at three in the morning to start cooking.

We spent our day in the kitchen, which had been our plan, cooking, listening to Christmas music, and watching the many birds that visited our feeders. We saw most of the birds that regularly visit including dark-eyed juncos (the first to arrive), a beautiful pair of cardinals, blue jays (after peanuts), a young crow who has recently started visiting (our first), mourning doves (zillions), cow birds, starlings, a red-winged blackbird, downey woodpeckers, red-bellied woodpeckers, a light colored house finch, and a gold finch.

Another pleasant change from Thanksgiving pasts is that Samba was able to spend the day with us instead of locked in his kennel upstairs. (Samba is not fond of children.)

Here are the roasted grapes. The foil pouch holds one of the shallots for the dressing. Roasting grapes takes a surprisingly long time.

I tried making cranberry sauce for the first time last year, following a recipe from the November 2005 issue of Fine Cooking. It is simple to make and delicious — much better than the canned stuff. You combine 12 ounces of fresh cranberries, half a cup of fresh squeezed orange juice, a cup of sugar, and two teaspoons of finely chopped fresh rosemary. Bring this mixture to a boil, then simmer for ten minutes. Take it off the heat, mix in a half teaspoon of grated orange zest, and the dish is finished. (My kind of cooking.)

Here is Elly layering sweet potatos over the carmelized onions for the gratin.

Here are the mushrooms and various goodies for the dressing.

Elly is adding the mushroom mixture to the rosemary olive oil bread.

Samba volunteering his taste-testing services...

And here is the guest of honor, at least from my and Samba’s point of view. It’s an 11 pound organic Diestel turkey.

I brined the turkey for four hours in a concentrated salt-water mixture Wednesday evening and then let it air-dry in the refrigerator overnight. This is a Cooks Illustrated recommendation for a crisper crust. I’m not sure I’ll do that again. Brining makes a huge difference, though. I never roast a turkey without brining it first. I also followed the Cooks Illustrated suggestion to rotate the turkey during cooking: you need a wire rack to do that. Next time I will leave the bird breast down for at least an hour, then flip it breast up, and skip the steps of having one side and then the other up. I’m also not convinced the 400 degree oven is the best approach. I’m going to switch back to cooking longer in a 325 degree oven next time. Still, the turkey was excellent, tender and juicy. I cook to an internal breast temperature of 165 and a thigh temp of 170.

I’m deglazing the roasting pan here with a mixture of dry vermouth, cognac, and turkey broth.

This is the base for the cognac gravy. After this simmers long enough to absorb the turkey drippings and flavoring from the onions, carrots, and celery (roasted with the bird), it is strained and then combined with heavy cream and flour and brought to a simmer in a heavy sauce pot (nothing lo-cal here!).

And here is the reward for our day in the kitchen – a splendid Thanksgiving feast. Actually, spending the day together doing something we love was a reward in itself. We drank a bottle of Duckhorn merlot with our meal: a delicious wine given to us some time back by our neighbors Joan and Diane for watching their deadly feline, Gingersnap, while they were out of town.

After dinner we settled in to watch White Christmas, a Thanksgiving tradition for us. We fell asleep about half way through the movie. Another tradition.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

IC 5217 PN, Lacerta

“...and we receive glances from the heavenly bodies, which call us to solitude and foretell the remotest future.”

I tried to spot this planetary with my 22-Inch Dob from the ASKC dark sky site when I was out with Rob Esson last weekend but couldn’t pick it out. The object is small, 6-7 arc seconds depending on the reference one checks. It looks stellar at low to moderate magnifcations and requires high magnification to differentiate from nearby stars. The seeing wasn’t terrific Friday night, either. In a large scope, stars appear swollen in less-than-ideal seeing conditions. This surely compounded the problem.

I decided to have another go from my backyard in midtown Kansas City using my XT-8 Dob, aided by several hyper-accurate star charts I made using MegaStar. The object’s visual magnitude is generally given as 11.5, easily within the reach of an 8-inch scope under urban skies. Here is one of the two finder charts, this is a wider view showing stars to 10.4 magnitude.

The eyepiece circles in this chart corespond to a 17mm Nagler Type 4 with a Paracorr coma corrector in an 8-inch f6 reflector. One of the excellent features of star-charting software is the ability to accurately depict the field of view seen with a specifc scope and eyepiece. The fields can even be mirror-reversed if necessary to show what is seen in an SCT or a refractor with a star diagonal (a critical navigation aid). The chart simplifies star hopping from an easily located star or object to a more challenging object like IC 5217.

Here is the second, more detailed chart. This shows the view in the same 17mm Type 4 eyepiece, but at a larger scale and with stars to 13 magnitude.

With these charts I was easily able to locate the planetary, even under urban skies. I used a 2-inch UHC filter to "blink" the planetary. This involves holding the filter in front of the eyepiece and then shifting it aside. The filter attenuates light from stars, making them seem fainter while the planetary is made to seem brighter. The technique is a valuable aid for confirming the identity of small planetary nebula. I also swapped in a 5mm Nagler Type 6 eyepiece, which provides a magnification of 280x with the XT-8 and Paracorr. At high magnification, in averted vision, the planetary could just be seen as non-stellar. That is, it had a tiny disk compared with stars in the field, which appeared as pinpoints.

Standard charts like the Sky Atlas 2000 and even the Uranometria don’t show faint enough stars to pinpoint objects like this, which is where custom charts really shine (if you’ll pardon the expression). Such observations are doubly fun because they can be made as easily from a backyard in the middle of the city as from a dark sky site in the country. And whereas a dark sky site trip requires hours of travel time, set up time, etc., making it all but impossible most nights, backyard observing can be easily done any clear night. It takes only minutes to set up an 8-inch Dob.

I went out around 9:30 PM, after Elly and I had a relaxed evening, fixing dinner together and watching a BBC mystery beforehand. I was back inside and going to bed by 10:30. In less than an hour of observing time, I saw not only this planetary, but another challenging planetary in Cassiopeia (IC 1747 near Epsilon Cassiopeia – more on that in my next astronomy post), comet 17P Holmes, Eta Persii (a fine double in Perseus), NGC 7789 and M52, open clusters in Cassiopeia, and the Dumbell Nebula, a planetary nebula in Perseus (M72), generally considered to be one of the more challenging Messier objects, but quite easy to observe compared with IC 5217.

IC 5217 is said to have a diameter of 15 arc-seconds in the Uranometria 2000 Deep Sky Field Guide by Cragin and Bonanno. This is obviously a mistake. The object I observed was much closer to the 6 or 7 arc seconds reported in other references.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Maple-Glazed Apple and Sweet Potato Gratin

We’re having a potluck at work tomorrow, called a “Turkey Bubble” because a dedicated crew of volunteers deep fries enough turkeys to feed the hundreds of people on our team. We have the event the week before Thanksgiving. The Nelson-Atkins Museum staff holds their Thanksgiving potluck the week before too. In addition to the turkey, supplied by management where I work, individuals sign up to bring various dishes. Elly and I decided to make Maple-Glazed Apple and Sweet Potato Gratin, dividing the dish into two pans so we could each bring it to work.

The recipe comes from The Thanksgiving Table: Recipes and Ideas to Create Your Own Holiday Tradition by Diane Morgan. The gratin recipe we used is on page 109. Elly has baked this for several years. It is simple to make and delicious, but she modified the cooking approach somewhat. Morgan suggests slicing the sweet potatoes and apples raw and layering them in a buttered baking dish. Elly found the potatoes required much longer to cook than the recipe suggested, so she parboils the sweet potatoes before pealing and slicing them. This shortens the cooking time and works much better.

My role in all this was to stop at Whole Foods on the way home to pick up needed ingredients. I also made the gratin sauce and sliced apples (albeit under close supervision from the master chef). I chose organic Granny Smith apples, sweet potatoes, and pure maple syrup. The only ingredients we used that were not organic were the brown sugar and butter (unsalted). The gratin sauce is made by melting four tablespoons of butter, mixing in three tablespoons of all purpose flower and cooking through (about one minute), then adding 1/4 cup of brown sugar, 3/4 cups of maple syrup, and a half teaspon of salt, and simmering this until all the ingredients are desolved and the sauce thickens (about six minutes).

The sliced apples and potatoes are arranged in a glass baking dish, the sauce is poured over them, and then the dishes are covered with aluminum foil and baked in a preheated 350-degree oven for about an hour. Since we want to serve them warm, we will pop them back in the oven tomorrow morning, uncovered, and bake them at 450 until they are heated through and slightly browned. Here is one of the two dishes after baking for an hour tonight.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Thanksgiving Invitations

None of these fine birds seemed that interested in a Thanksgiving Day invitation. At least, they didn't hang around too long after Rob and I stopped on the road to take a few shots -- with Rob's digital SLR. I counted 18 birds. This group includes 11 of them. A second, smaller group to the left was already filing into the woods when we took this picture. And this group departed the scene moments later.

It was a lot of fun to see them, anyway. I was surprised by how big they actually are. Any of them would have made an enjoyable Thanksgiving Day guest...

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Stalwart Observing Companion

Rob Esson (at left), one of my favorite observing companions, and I finally made it out for a night under the stars. I can't recall the last time we observed together. Rob travels in his job and is often out of the country. It has been several years at any rate. We went to the ASKC dark sky site near Butler, Missouri and had a pleasant evening even though the observing conditions were not the greatest.

Rob brought his bino chair and was working on the Astronomy League's deep sky binocular program. I set up the 22-inch dob and was looking at whatever came to mind. We had particularly memorable views of comet 17P Holmes, which Rob dubbed the "celestial jellyfish," aptly describing its odd, uncomet-like appearance. We also had fine views of the Veil Nebula in Cygnus and the Orion Nebula, both of which look fabu in the big scope. Oh, and we also looked at one of Rob's favorite Caldwell objects -- NGC 891, a faint but impressive edge-on spiral galaxy in Andromeda.

The skies were murky off and on during the night and became increasingly so after 11:30 PM. The seeing wasn't terrific either. I made a brief, abortive attempt to look at the Horsehead Nebula, an object I have not observed before. The seeing conditions simply weren't good enough. Earlier in the evening, however, I did observe the Cocoon Nebula, a famously elusive object which I have only seen once before and that time rated it an extremely difficult observation. With the 22-inch and a UHC filter it is easy to see even under less than ideal conditions. It reportedly responds well to a Hydrogen Beta filter, an item on my astronomy accesory shortlist.

We knocked off around 2:30 AM, got up at 8:00 AM, packed up, and left the DSS around 10. On our way toward Butler, we saw a flock of 18 wild turkeys, the most either of us have seen before. Some of them were surprisingly large. We shot a number of pictures with Rob's digital SLR. I'll post a few on my blog when he sends them to me. We stopped for breakfast at a diner in Butler on our way back to Kansas City.